Sunday, July 17, 2016

Boy Scouts of America: Science Outreach that Lasts

I hiked around Ithaca, NY, the day before the 4th International Conference on Computational Sustainability at Cornell University, and happened upon a knickknack shop, where I found a cache of 1963 Boy Scout merit badge pamphlets. I bought two that I didn’t already have — Gardening and Bookbinding. The Gardening pamphlet was written by Professor Paul Work of Cornell University, probably in the 1940s when the material was copyrighted. Professor Work died in 1959, after a distinguished career that included The Tomato — if you scroll down a bit, you’ll see that Professor Work apparently liked to put faces to science.
I haven’t researched the history yet, but Boy Scout merit badges are my earliest recollection, as a scout myself, of formalized mechanisms of promoting lifelong and project-based learning through badging, and communicating science and technology to the public. Professor Work’s outreach on gardening may seem closer to hobbyist than to scientific material, but there is science outreach in that badge, and among the other original 1911 merit badges were those that were clearly science outreach and learning, including Astronomy, Ornithology (later Bird Study), Chemistry, and Electricity. Still others of the originals had additional sustainability connections, to include Conservation, Agriculture, and Forestry.
The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) are one of the very first environmental groups in America, and while BSA has been "dragged kicking and screaming" into inclusiveness on some social issues (see Treehugger article), though they are coming along, they have been environmentalists consistently. The current crop of sustainability-relevant merit badges are many: Animal Science; Architecture; Bird Study; Composite Materials; Energy; Environmental Science; Fish and Wildlife Management; Forestry; Geology; Insect Study; Landscape Architecture; Mammal Study; Mining in Society; Nature; Nuclear Science; Oceanography; Plant Science; Reptile and Amphibian Study; Soil and Water Conservation; and Sustainability. Moreover, among the required badges for Eagle Scout is either Environmental Science or Sustainability (choose at least one). A history of all merit badges, past and present, is an interesting read, ..., for those interested (like me!).  

After CompSust-2016, I went to Nashville’s Scout shop and picked up many of the study pamphlets for sustainability-related merit badges, and I was gratified to find attention to climate change in the most recent Sustainability merit badge (instituted 2013), and as importantly, global warming, climate change, and greenhouse effects have found their way into the study pamphlets of older merit badges like Chemistry, Weather, Environmental Science, and others. This article in Treehugger points to exactly the same satisfaction and mild surprise that I found in the BSA environmental record since I was last active.

BSA has a long history of technology-relevant merit badges too (e.g Machinery, 1911 - 1995). In “my day” there were badges on Computers (1967-2014), Electronics (1963 - ), Engineering (1967 - ), which has morphed and grown to include Digital Technology; Robotics; Programming; Geocaching; Game Design; Entrepreneurship; and Graphic Arts. And this brings me to a desire and goal of infusing computational sustainability (i.e., the application of computing to solve sustainability challenges) or CompSust for short, into the BSA merit badge system. While I have focused on BSA, which is integral to my personal story, I am learning about Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) and their badging system, with goals for CompSust outreach in GSUSA as well.

Scouting has a long and proven history of science and engineering outreach (as well as Arts and Humanities outreach — just look at the merit badge list)! So its no surprise that as part of a network funded by the National Science Foundation, we are investigating the outreach possibilities with BSA and GSUSA -- we want science and engineering outreach mechanisms that will operate beyond the institutions of the network and that will persist beyond the period that we are funded. Web searches with keywords such as “NSF” (or “National Science Foundation”), “Boy Scouts” and “merit badge” show that NSF proposals include “outreach” activities with scouting, and merit badge workshops and study groups (e.g., “CAREER: Computational Modeling of Microstructure Evolution during Vapor Deposition”). Additional poking around finds that museums around the country work with scouts as part of the museum’s disciplinary outreach (e.g., Nashville’s Adventure Science Museum). Museums and other institutions can have their own (digital) badging systems, and so we are designing the desiderata, requirements, and graphic designs of CompSust badges.

Our network can aspire to create BSA and GSUSA merit badges on Computational Sustainability, but in the near term, our focus is on workshop materials that scouts and their mentors can use to integrate computing into satisfaction of sustainability-themed badge requirements, and to integrate sustainability into computing-themed badges.

I think that the “secret formula” of BSA is that the library and internet research involved in merit badges, ecology-themed and otherwise, are side by side with merit badges (and Eagle projects, and other activities) that get adherents out into the world, with “active study” in areas such as Backpacking; Cooking; Gardening; Scuba Diving; Search and Rescue; Climbing; Shooting; Fishing; and Citizenship in the Community, Nation, and the World. All of these activities bonded me with nature and my fellows, and BSA helped me amalgamate an appreciation of nature, citizenship, science, and humanities. BSA did its job very well.
Thanks to Professor Paul Work too, for being a pioneer in communicating science to the public. In part, it was serendipity that I discovered him, but it was serendipity that was made more probable by my curiosity about and appreciation for the place I was in.


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